TL;DR, Sri Lanka is a beautiful lush country, rich with culture, welcoming and generous people, the most delicious food (bring on the local spice!) and terrible traffic. Here are some photos of our 2 week trip to Sri Lanka, our first adventure in this part of the world.
When Jaap’s colleague Sudam asked us if we wanted to join him visiting his parents and his home country, we didn’t skip a beat and took him up on his offer. Thus began the planning and execution of a beautiful trip.
At the center of this trip is the warm and welcoming family of Sudam. Sujeeva and Dileepa took us in like family. Dileepa cooked us a wide variety of Sri Lankan dishes, Sujeeva had and endless supply of fresh tea and together we had many stimulating conversations. It was truly a pleasure to have Maharagma as our base camp for this 2 week trip.
The holiday was split in 4 main parts: exploring the South coast and tea country near Galle, a family trip to the history rich North Central Province, the climb of Sri Pada and driving around hill country hunting for water falls and elephants.
Catching the bus from Maharagma to Galle takes you whizzing over a practically empty toll highway and grinds to a halt in the local hectic traffic of Galle. Traffic rules, who needs them? Turns out, Sri Lanka could do with them :). But bending the rules is handy when you want to rent a car and you forgot to bring your passport and the owner is out for a holiday. The owner’s nephew was happy to vouch for us. He told us about his experiences at uni during the war over a cup of tea and tasty little Sri Lankan bananas, while we waited for the owner of the car rental place to come home. It’s all about connections in Sri Lanka. With the time we had left, we lucked into visiting the Nandana Tea Factory, a proud family business with a dapper head of the family braving pouring rain, but not the lightning, to tell us all about his garden, tea plantation, tea factory and tea tasting. A couple of hours well spend, and lots of tea to bring home as a bonus.
Back in Galle, we got in touch with our VOC roots spending the night in a former Dutch merchant house with a four-poster bed. The strong walls of the fort itself are said to have reduced the devastating impact of the 2004 Tsunami. The difference in ambiance inside the fort (tourist city!) and outside (local life in all it’s wonderful complexity) was very stark. We were led to a beautiful spice stall, where we made some purchases so we (I mean Jaap) can try to recreate the dishes back home.
Central North Province
Next up was all the history, irrigation and Buddhism you can squeeze in a 3 day family trip. Led by Uncle, the whole family got in a mini-van for an adventure to Central North.
The practice of irrigation started centuries BCE with small village tanks. Much later, King Parākramabāhu I of Kingdom of Polonnaruwa (1153-86) constructed further extensive irrigation systems. His most famous adage is “not even a little water that comes from the rain must flow into the ocean without being made useful to man”. We visited some of the bigger tanks (Deduruoya Reservoir, Rajangana Reservoir, Kale Wewa Reservoir). Time has not stood still though, more often than not you can see the remains of the old bunts close to location of newly erected ones. Some very impressive engineering then and now, enough to make this engineer very happy.
Anuradhapura, the Sinhalese first capital and the center of Sri Lankan Buddhism for many centuries is famous for its well-preserved ruins of an ancient Sri Lankan civilization. The area was uninhabited for many centuries, but the local population remained aware of the ruins. Various excavations have taken place, beginning in 1884 and continuing until current day. The amount of Buddhist temples and the remains of monasteries, baths and hospitals are amazing. Anuradhapura must have been quite a bustling center of activity back in the day when 5-10,000 monks called it home.
Sigiriya is a combination of beautiful gardens, a challenging ascent to the top of the rock, and the story of King Dhatusena and his two sons. Mogallana his youngest son by one of the most desired and finest of his queens, and Kassapa, by a less significant consort. Upon hearing that Mogallana had been declared heir to the throne, Kassapa rebelled. What happened next illustrates the importance given to water in early Sinhalese civilization. Threatened with death if he would refuse to reveal the whereabouts of the state treasure, Dhatusena agreed to show his errant son its location if he was permitted to bathe one final time in the great Kalawewa Tank, of which the construction he had overseen. Standing within the tank, Dhatusena poured its water through his hands and told Kassapa that this alone was his treasure. Kassapa, none too impressed, had his father walled up in a chamber and left him to die. Mogallana, meanwhile, vowed to return from India and reclaim his inheritance. Kassapa, making preparations for the expected invasion, constructed a new dwelling on top of the 200-metre-high Sigiriya rock – a combination of pleasure palace and indestructible fortress. It can also be seen as a dictionary definition of a golden cage.
Next up was a longstanding wish of Sudam to climb Sri Pada, at the top of which a footprint mark can be found, left behind by Buddha when he visited Sri Lanka. The mountain (and footprint) is considered sacred as well by the Hindus, Muslims and Christians, so it’s a special bushwalk no matter your background. At the top a Buddhist shrine has been erected near the footprint. The preferred way to make the climb is to ascend by night to arrive in time for sunrise, after which you make your way down again. We chose the Kuruwita-Erathna trail, which is the least steep, but also the longest and most challenging trail. The 2 km climb over 12 km and the same route back again within 24 hours left us somewhat exhausted. However, the experience was quite hard to top, from the tea shops along the trail (!), the river of white faces that came up via the Hatton route after the quiet and local experience on the route we used, to the actual sunrise and “floating” shade cast by the mountain at the top. Sujeeva summed it up nicely afterwards with a well-known maxim: only a fool would never climb Sri Pada and only a fool would climb it more than once.
Udawalawe National park and Hill Country
After Sri Pada, we said goodbye to Sudam and his friend and continued our route to our very first safari ever, in National Park Udawalawe. Here you are bound to come across an few munching elephants and plenty of peacocks along the way. Next time, we would love to visit Yala National Park to hopefully see some big cats, but now we chose to explore the Hill Country instead. While Jaap was expertly maneuvering our Toyota Prius through the local traffic and over the small hill roads like the international driver he is, I was clinging to the dashboard screaming like a cheerleader. Business as usual for us, so we had a jolly good time. The many waterfalls ranged from easy to reach tourist infested water holes to beautiful sights viewed from peaceful meadows infested by leeches. In between lay many a tea plantation, coloring the landscape all shades of green.
All good things must end
Fortunately, there are plenty of good reasons to return to Sri Lanka. So many sights that still need seeing, so many provinces not yet visited. We did however manage to squeeze in a quick visit to a hand loom factory, where we got a tour and full explanation of how these full-body-workout hand loom apparatuses work. We weren’t allowed to take pictures, but it looked very much like this video, including the operator ladies whom I would not like to face in a hand-wrestling competition. Afterwards they showed me how to wear a Sri Lankan Saree and had loads of beautiful fabrics for me to choose from. I’m on a self-imposed fabric ban, but these are souvenirs :).